Getting outside with science: can it build momentum of interest?

stick insect science education biology entomolgyFun Junction currently has a bug infestation…but, you know, the good kind: ‘Insect Lore’ recently sent us two lovely new stick insects. This builds on our population of Fun Junction pets which, up till now, consisted solely of some aqua dragons. We have Barbara and Fetch (get it ‘Fetch the stick insect’, you can thank one of our facebook likers for that wee pun).

We had Barbara and Fetch along at our stall at Perth’s garden and outdoors show last weekend and it gave us a chance to show off all the fun sciency stuff kids can do outdoors without even realising they’re doing any sciency stuff (does that make sense as a sentence? It sounded right in my head). Getting kids into science and helping them to feel comfortable about asking questions about the world around them is vital, both for parents and educators, but there’s a tricky issue when it comes to maintaining interest.

really gross scienceThere’s a rising realisation at the moment that a lot of girls are not engaging with science after a certain age. When we try to understand why this is happening, we have to consider the host of social stages that girls are going through (not to say that boys don’t experience their own, just as affective, stages). These social changes are thinning the numbers slowly and surely all the way through primary school, high school and on into adult life. Surely anything that increases interest at a young age is likely to provide that smidgen more momentum to help girls stay interested as they mature.

There are of course a host of other issues to tackle, possibly most pressing being the cultural idea that maths and science are for boys. However, I could easily get bogged down in discussing this so just for this post I just want to look at ways of building a level of interest with some real momentum, in the hopes that the children that experience it start to think of themselves as scientists from a very early age.

pop up Port-a-Bug bug enclosure catcher biology science toy children resourceThis is where outdoor engagement with wildlife can be helpful. Children can monitor the quantity of wildlife and the behaviour of that wildlife throughout the year, developing an emotional investment in what can only be regarded as scientific research (albeit on a fairly small scale). This can be as simple as setting yoghurt tub traps under a hedge and noting what you find. When you add some educational aides to the mix it makes it even easier to get kids interested; this can range from bug catchers that let them see the mini-beasts they encounter up-close and personal, all the way to insect habitats in your home or classroom which allow children to observe insect behaviour throughout the day.

In terms of the kinds of toys Insect Lore has put together they offer loads of educational aides which are functional whilst managing to remain entertaining and different. Every one of their products draws children in to find out more about the living world around them and on top of this the sets have a bright cheerful feel that can sometimes be so sadly absent from educational toys (especially science-related toys). The simplest way to tell you about what they provide is with a quick run-down (I’ll throw in some mentions for some other companies along the way too):

Insect lore Creature Peeper biology entomology children toy resource classroomNavir Bug Viewer biology entomolgy children toy resourceJars and magnification: There’s something really startling about seeing what an insect (any insect) really looks like. Give a child a magnifying glass and an insect and you’re basically sending them into an alien encounter. The physicality and behaviour of insects is so different to our own that children (and most adults too to be honest) can’t help but be enthralled by what they see (just look at Rose-Lynn Fisher’s ‘Bee’ to see what I mean). At Fun Junction we stock a heap of magnifying bug jars (by Insect Lore and Navir, among others) that vary in size and functionality from mini jars that can fit in a pocket, to large display jars with multiple-angle magnifying viewing windows). Insects just won’t look the same to a child again.

insect lore Living_Twig indian stick insect biology entomology children toy resource classroominsect lore Live_Butterfly_Garden biology entomology children toy resource classroomStick insects and butterflies: This next collection pushes things to a different stage of commitment. With bug jars you’re typically responsible for an insect for at the most a few minutes. However, with a butterfly or stick insect pack you’re watching insects develop from an egg to a full-blown adult. This process can take a few weeks (as is the case for butterflies) or it can mean as much as a couple of years of care and attention (a stick-insect’s life-span). Along with the extra responsibility there comes the advantage of being able to show children the entire life cycle of a creature in real time. For those who think the end of a stick insect’s life-cycle might be a bit difficult for a child to take the release of a net-full of butterflies may be a much more attractive option (I know my eldest wouldn’t cope too well with the death of a pet at this stage, he’s only 5 just now).

navir_Optic_Wonder biology entomology children toy resource classroomOther resources: Insect Lore also makes a range of other resources that can help children to understand insects and insect behaviour. This includes life-cycle figures, butterfly feeders, bug’s-eye-view goggles and many other things to use for display and play which allow children to feel connected with studying insects.

These are just a few products that can help develop a momentum of interest in science in children (I’ve set up the images so that clicking on them takes you to the product page where you can find out more). There are heaps more science toys that we stock at Fun Junction and I’ll definitely talk about science toys again in future. Are there any ways that educators or parents have found of sparking that kind of interest? I’ve already mentioned yoghurt tub traps (you dig a hole, put in a fairly large plastic yoghurt tub which makes it harder for insects to climb back out, and then you come back the next day to see what insects have fallen into the trap), but are there any other home-made methods you know of to help kids get in touch with the natural world around them? As always I love to hear from you and if you fancy catching up with me on twitter you can get me here. Thanks for reading, all the best, John

When the Trains Take Over (Brio play days)

sheldon trainsAs the great Dr. Cooper says ‘Don’t be silly, you love trains!’. All the staff at Fun Junction have train brain this week, we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the next few days in our Perth shop: Brio have lent us a ridiculously large collection of trains and accessories and we’ll be popping it all out in store for kids to have a play. It’s as simple as that, no charge, no pushy sales-pitch just pop your child down with the trains and let them enjoy.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

Freight Battery Engine (by Brio) Sturdy battery powered freight train can pull surprisingly well on just one AA battery.

I love the fact that one of the companies we deal with has put together such a genuine and enjoyable experience. They haven’t pushed a rake of cash into a traditional advertising campaign, instead they’ve made a toy range that they’re proud of and they’ve decided to let the general public decide for themselves if Brio trains are any good. As any parent with a child with a train fascination knows Brio is not the cheapest wooden railway system on the planet, in fact I don’t know of any wooden railway products that cost more. That said I’ve found through experience that you really do get what you pay for.

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Switching tracks with signal box and signal master. Add extra fuel to the imagination: what will you do with a runaway train!!???

Every wooden railway system is compatible with one another (well every system I’ve come across anyway), there are some that come very close to Brio’s quality level (like BigJigs) and cost a little less and there are others that are a lot cheaper. There’s therefore nothing wrong with shopping around to get bits and pieces from all these different companies to get a nice mix of quality and lower budget. That said I think the great thing about the Brio play day is that it’ll give parents (myself included) a chance to see what a train set made entirely out of Brio-quality pieces will be like. Not only that but because the set gets passed around group to group, shop to shop around the country we’ll all get to see how they do in terms of general wear-and-tear.

brio railwy uk fun junction toy shop scotland perth crieff perthshire

One of the only wooden railway trains that you’ll find that can take passengers, with spaces for two drivers and three passengers (Brio figures), you can get one here.

This is what I love about this event, Brio isn’t forcing an agenda, they’re not pushing a new line by throwing a pile of adverts in the middle of your child’s favorite shows: instead they’re saying ‘Here, we made something that we think is pretty great but you have a play, you decide, is it worth the extra cost to get a train/a piece of track/a station/any other accessory made by us?’ There’s nothing for them to hide behind, if your child plays with the trains and doesn’t like them then no amount of advertising will change that, so Brio has to make sure that what your child is presented with is something pretty awesome. It’s a gamble and takes a lot of bottle for a toy company to do what Brio is doing, but based on my own experience of their products I can’t say I’m all that nervous for them, I think they’ll do just fine.

Have you come across any companies (toy or otherwise) who surprised you like this? Are some companies good enough to do away with traditional advertising or do you think that, without TV ads constantly reminding them, kids will just forget about a toy/brand? I’d also love to hear any experiences you’ve had with Brio (good or bad). As always thank you so much for stopping by, I’m one of these sad people that get’s a bit of a buzz from things like reader counts and comments so it’s always brilliant when someone stops by for a read and it’s even better if you leave a comment. If you’re in the Perth (Scotland) area then pop along to our shop on the 15th, 16th or 17th of May to join in the fun (they’re open from 9:15am till 5;15pm, Cheers, John

UPDATE: Please note our Brio play day has passed but we have every intention of hosting another one soon 🙂

Being independent, the pros and cons

lone wolf foil art fun junctionThere’s safety in doing what the majority is doing: for starters you’re less likely to be admonished or ridiculed if you follow the status quo. However it can be limiting as well, not only that but it makes it harder to think for yourself and act in ways that differ from the norm.

For my regular followers, this post is going to be a bit different and I’ll be straying pretty far off my usual toy-related topics. If you fancy joining me for the next few paragraphs I welcome anything you have to say about. If you’d rather wait for my next toy post then our regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly and in the mean time feel free to check out some toy related posts I prepared earlier ‘How to Play‘, ‘Why are dinosaurs so universal?‘, or my first ever post which was about my son’s favourite toys at the time ‘Pocket money‘.

Today I’m going to be looking at independence in children and in independent businesses (please bear with me, I’ve got genuine reasons for thinking they’re related). For starters there’s the obvious notion that a business is often the ‘brain child’ of some entrepreneur. That said it’s worth spelling out what real parenting is like, since ‘brain child’ makes it sound like it’s something complete, like the job is done, which just isn’t the case with parenting.

Every new parent has absolutely no clue what they’re doing and will rely heavily on the help of others, consulting the advice of other parents, parenting books, blogs and a whole host of other sources. As time goes on a relationship develops and you start to realise that what you’re doing isn’t a job with a list of check-points to tick off but instead it’s a more responsive and evolving role as you provide support and advice that you hope will steer your child in the right direction.

So how does this relate to independent stores? In some ways it really doesn’t, especially the help element, since (for starters) some independent businesses can be so specific that there just won’t be a book/web forum/advice group that fits the bill. That said, most parents eventually learn that something like this is true of their children as well; they’re individuals, what works for one parent with their child might be a terrible idea to try out with another. It’s all about relationships.

One very clear similarity between a child and an independent business is that an independent business (especially a retail business) will start to develop it’s own ‘personality’ pretty quickly. Regardless of what you want people to think about your business they’ll make up their own mind. (I’m basically borrowing/stealing/being-inspired-by an ‘Un-Podcast’ post here). With this in mind independent shops are in a pretty good position to micro-manage their behaviour in ways that bigger businesses just couldn’t.

If a large company makes a mistake in policy which causes them to inconvenience customers (or even annoy them) then it could take months for them to realise and make the required changes. In a small shop it can be as simple as a phone call and you’ve got a happy customer. All the same it can still be hard to keep track of what your business is becoming.

Over the next week (possibly more) I’ll be posting about what I feel stands out about the company I work for: Fun Junction. I’ll mostly be talking about toys, games, books etc. which we stock that I find really distinctive and many of these come from companies that a lot of people may not have heard about. I’ll be posting a link to this blog post on my twitter account, tagging other independent business for ‘Follow Friday’ (today) so if you’ve found your way to this post from there, welcome to my blog, thanks for stopping by and please feel free to share your own experiences of being on the inside of an independent business. I also welcome comments from readers regarding why they do/don’t shop local. I know it’s a departure from my usual subject matter but I hope it drums up some interesting discussion. Thanks for stopping by, Cheers, John

Step asside Barbie, ‘Lammily’ is taking a turn in the spotlight!

LammilyNickolay Lamm has been at it again. You may remember his make-up free Barbie that I posted about a few months ago, well his next step was to re-imagine a Barbie-style doll which met the average proportions of a 19 year old (I assume in the US). His design prompted a demand for an actual working toy and so he put together a crowd-funding page to get the doll into production (with the help of ex-VP of manufacture at Mattel; Roger Rambeau). They’ve already exceeded their goal by double (as of 7th March 2014) so the doll is happening.

average_compositeThe opinions are starting to pour in, some of them surprisingly negative. The primary complaint seems to be that Lammily isn’t ‘average enough’, or that she’s ‘too pretty to be average’ and I don’t know what we could say to this. Is she pretty? Well yes, in an average kind of way, but there seems to be reams of research supporting the notion that when you average out a large number of faces you get an attractive (though perhaps not very distinctive) result. So that sorts the ‘too pretty to be average’ issue. To be honest given the research she’s too average not to be pretty.

The next issue is: is she really average? Do a large portion of young women have body shapes which look like Lammily’s? To be honest we may never get an answer on that. Every community you belong to may have women in it with a very different set of physical qualities. When you average their proportions out perhaps you’ll get something like Lammily’s dimensions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one young woman in that group will have those proportions herself.

All of that said it’s hard to deny the fact that Lammily looks less alien, a lot more human and, most importantly, a lot more healthy than I’ve ever seen Barbie look. I would agree that Nickolay Lamm hasn’t really succeeded in making the most expressive or dynamic wardrobe for Lammily but in his defence Barbie has 60 years and the brunt of Mattel behind her selection of clothing. Overall there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Lammily apart from one glaring issue (at least for me): Lammily is an average nineteen year old. What age are the girls who will make up the target-audience of Lammily? Possibly nine or ten at the most?

groovyLottie Pony Flag Race CompFor all of Lammily’s positive attributes I have to side with a more realistic girl doll like ‘Lottie’ or Manhattan’s ‘Groovy girls’. This isn’t just because we stock them, in fact we stock them precisely because they’re a more realistic image for a young girl to try and imitate. There’s definitely a place for the aspirational enjoyment of an ‘adult-looking’ fashion doll but when it comes to producing something relatable, and something that places less emphasis on the importance of growing up quickly, I have to side with Lottie and the Groovies every time.

What do you think? Is Lammily ‘average’? Would you still prefer a Barbie? Are fashion dolls in general too mature for girls or is there an important aspirational element to that kind of play? As always your comments are more that welcome either below this post or you can feel free to send me a tweet (you can also find my twitter feed to the right of this post). Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

P.S As a side note, here’s a defence of Barbie dolls ‘written by’ the plastic icon herself (makes for interesting reading).

Do you actually enjoy shopping?

toy stall fife parents and toddlers show onesiesHow important is it to be entertained when you go into a shop? Do bored staff make you feel uninspired about the whole experience? It’s ‘Small Business Saturday’ today (at least in the UK) so I thought I’d take a break from doing voices etc. to think about something a bit different and consider some of the reasons behind our shopping habits. I’ll apologise from the outset that what follows isn’t particularly toy related, however I’m sure we all have an opinion on this (and I’d love to hear yours).

I’ve worked in various shops over the years, some of them I’ve loved and some I’ve really not. I’m starting to notice a trend now in shops and the thing that stands out to me is that some shops I walk into make feel as though I’m entering a glorified vending machine whilst others give me the feeling that I’m valued and that they genuinely want to help me, whether I’m spending 20p or £200. Sadly there seem to be fewer of the latter.

christmas independent businessesThis gets especially obvious at Christmas when staff are stretched thin and nerves are even thinner. I’ll admit I’m generally not a fan of shopping at Christmas, mainly due to the stress, the mass of people and the generally snappy (and sometimes aggressive) atmosphere. That said, when I walk into a shop where staff at least take an interest (even if only in passing because they’re busy and strapped for time) it makes me enjoy it a bit more.

The thing that really plays on your mind as a retailer at this time of year is whether you’re a vending machine or a human being: are you helping and adding something to the experience or are you just standing there and bagging up stuff?

It makes you wonder about the multiple ‘shop local’ campaigns up and down the country and the fact that smaller stores often have more experienced (and specialised) staff, meaning that they’re typically in a much better position to help you and make your day a little easier. However, the flip side is that a lot of these stores, after years of competing with supermarket/megastore prices start to feel a bit down-trodden and the enthusiasm starts to wilt.

I’ve always enjoyed the limelight and I’ve never felt particularly uncomfortable about looking a bit ‘silly’ in front of others so perhaps I’m not the best judge on this. However, I can’t help but feel that the future of shops lies in our ability to entertain customers whilst making their shopping trip an easy one. Where I work we have no ‘sales handbook’ or items to ‘push’, and that’s very liberating. I’ve worked in stores that did have handbooks, pushed lines, and sales policies and not only are these policies patronising to both the staff and the customer, more importantly they make you feel inhibited and scared to stand out, in short they contribute to staff apathy.

fun junction independent small business local toy shopI’m allowed to have favourite toys/brands/departments at Fun Junction (we never have a particular brand that we’re forced to show to customers) and in no way does this make me lose focus on the other toys we sell. Instead it makes me more willing to try the toys and find new favourites. Anyone who knows me knows that I love my job (who wouldn’t? I get to play with toys for a living!) and this means that I can step up to the stage of the shop counter and feel completely prepared and comfortable about where I am.

I’ve always enjoyed being on stage, whether in a band or acting, I thrive on attention and I love to see people react positively to something I’m doing. Back when I was at uni I used to busk as a means of getting some extra cash and it is genuinely the most exposed I’ve ever felt but it was also invigorating. As a result of the type of things I’ve done I’m not squeamish about people’s opinions, unless of course the response I get is boredom or apathy. Perhaps that really is the biggest fear of the small retailer: that you’ll try something and no one will care, but isn’t it still worth trying?

Every weird event, every dressed up staff member, every themed day is something that bigger stores can’t do without a serious amount of planning. Even if it’s not a success at the time, even if none of your customers seem to notice it very much, it still makes you special, they’ll still remember it and when someone mentions your shop to them what will come to mind is your uniqueness and your energy. So to all the independents out there I hope you have a brilliant ‘Small Business Saturday’ and that it gives you a chance to shine.

Are there shops where you feel entertained or simply just welcomed? How differently do you feel about shopping there in comparison to less enthusiastic shops? Do you simply not shop in brick and mortar stores any more, preferring to shop online? (there’s no shame in that, we all do it) That said if you do only/mostly shop online what attracts you to a web store, what makes you keep coming back? As always thanks for stopping by and reading my blog, you can subscribe by entering your address in the box to the right, Cheers, John

Boys just don’t sit!

020920131304If you have a son/sons then you’re apparently in for some difficulty because boys are just not able to sit still long enough to do anything constructive/productive. It would seem that around a decade ago, somewhere in the world, someone sat down and decided that boys are incapable of sitting still. I’m not sure of the reasoning, perhaps they thought that testosterone prevents the brains of the males of our species from focussing on one thing for longer than 5 seconds…

boomOooh what was that? cool…explosions…

Anyway what was I saying, oh yeh, boys are the goldfish of the human world, fleeting from one thing to the next brimming with energy and the need to fight. At least that’s what seems to have become the perspective of a fairly vocal minority. The funny thing is though that traditionally ‘boyish’ toys like Meccano, Lego, Airfix etc. are particularly demanding both on one’s ability to focus and on one’s patience.

centepede, comando etc etcI’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve heard say ‘Oh he just won’t sit’ and it saddens me to think that so many wee boys are missing out on the entertainment of crafts and construction (not to mention the handy skill-set they contribute to as well). What’s more the consensus seems to be that boys of eight years and up are only interested in computer games. I’ll agree that if the games available now had been around when I was a kid you’d have had a hard time pulling me away from them. The thing is though I was pretty hooked on games and TV myself as a kid but the difference was that we only had one TV in the house. Kids TV only lasted a couple of hours after school and a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday morning. On top of that I had to be really good if I wanted to hook my wee Atari 2600 up to the TV (that or I had to challenge my dad to a game).

Because of this I needed to find other ways to occupy myself and so I delved into my box of Lego and Meccano and got building, once I got started you wouldn’t see me for hours. I wonder if this is the problem now, because kids are so accustomed to getting the entertainment they want when they want it, they have genuine problems when trying to occupy themselves outside of that environment. Add to this children’s (all children’s) built-in need to expend energy and the room left for more mellow pursuits seems quite small.

Big-MacThis is where parents come in. I will make a point of not blaming parents for this state of affairs, because I really don’t think there is any blame to be had. Right now, unlike any time in history, our access to leisure, diversion and entertainment arguably requires less effort/money than our access to food. In a world like this we need to be careful to vary our ‘entertainment diet’ or we risk mental obesity: that is, if our children grow up without the capacity to shut off from technology and do something different, pretty soon the only way they’ll be able to think will be in terms of entertainment technology.

A varied life is a fulfilling one and though parents have never had to do this before we are now in a position where we have to think seriously about harbouring a peculiar ability in our children; the ability to entertain themselves. Not with a tablet, a PC or some other passive entertainment media, but with something solid in the world. If they can’t connect to the physical world around them there is a danger that soon the only world they’ll know will be digital.

Having your level 49 Paladin killed in an online game shouldn’t get the same response as the loss of a pet. The physical world didn’t cease to be when the internet was invented and we should be wary of letting our kids disappear into the web. I love the internet, I love the artistic freedom it has produced and I’m a big fan of the diversion you can get from gaming, TV catch-up facilities, and all the other wonders it has to offer, but with anything this good there has to be a down side and the down side is clear: There is a genuine possibility for a child to find their virtual life more fulfilling than their life in the physical world. It is our job as parents (a new job I might add) to ensure that this doesn’t happen and that every now and then our kids get the chance to interact with something which doesn’t only exist behind a screen.

Just as our parents had to struggle to find the balance between ‘junk’ and more ‘wholesome’ food, we now have to consider ways of helping our kids to enjoy both easy and more involved forms of entertainment. How do we do that? I hear you ask, well you tell me. My eldest is still only five years old, I’m at least a couple of years away from the digital conflict. Perhaps you have some war stories to share.

Sorry for the long post, I shouldn’t wait so long between postings, it seems to produce a backlog of ideas. As always thank you for reading and feel free to share your opinion on either the attention span of boys, or on the role of digital entertainment below, Cheers, John

How to play

Giraffe eating a dinosaur

Puppets are a great way to stimulate pretend play, pop over here to have a look at some of the puppets stocked by Fun Junction.

This sounds like a bit of a ridiculous question but can you remember how to play? Strange as it sounds I’ve heard of adults who have genuinely lost the ability and there also seem to be a great number of parents who struggle with certain types of play. One of the key difficulties seems to arise during what we might call ‘pretend play’. The primary worry I hear is that there is a feeling of obligation that you, as the parent, will be expected to plan out a whole story and create a host of characters out of the toy figures in front of you. This is an intimidating prospect, especially where playtime comes at the end of the day when your mind is dulled after a day at work, or a day filled with housework and running the kids around to meet their busy social calendar (our kids always seem to have better social lives than we do).

Fortunately this isn’t really what’s involved in pretend play. I’m sure your kids would love it if you mapped out a whole story for them and then played it out before their eyes with a vibrant array of exceptionally voiced characters (who wouldn’t?!). To be honest though, that’s not playing, that’s more like a high-end puppet show. Scale it back, and remember how you used to play, but if that fails here are some tips:

  • Go to my previous post ‘5 hints for telling a good story‘ some of this is specific to reading but the explanations of how to change your voice and animate character traits should be useful.
  • If you genuinely struggle with pretend play then DON’T, and I’ll repeat DON’T, use a character they know from TV/films. Doing this will result in one of two things: EITHER you’ll crack it and perform that character flawlessly (or at least well enough for your kid to be happy with it) OR you’ll be terrible and your kid will just laugh at your attempts, disrupting play and bruising your confidence. If you crack it then there’s a strong chance that that is the only character your child will let you play as and this will get tedious fast (this character could also become a crutch, limiting you from enjoying all the fun that pretend play has to offer). Neither of these outcomes is particularly great.
  • Pick one or two character toys to play with and give them a character ‘quirk’. Don’t make them a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’, of course that’s what kids often do but as an adult you can bring something different into the mix. Here’s an example, try a character who thinks everything they are presented with is edible. Your child will likely find it hilarious as they chase after the character trying to explain that they shouldn’t eat a cushion/a sock/ the TV/ someone’s hair.
  • Allow your character to develop. Even if you’re only playing for ten minutes or so you’ll find an easy ‘plot point’ in allowing your character to change their mind about something. If you need it, the development can be also used as a means of setting a time limit. Using the example above, the character could come to realise that not everything is edible as dinner time approaches (‘OK, OK, so I can’t eat your shoe but can I eat whatever it is that’s making that lovely smell?’ ‘Yes, that’s dinner!’ ‘Great let’s eat dinner!’).
  • Finally have fun, have as much fun as you can. They’ll only be playing like this for so long. Also, to keep things interesting, try occasionally throwing in some behaviour that breaks the status quo, this should help your child to think on their feet and it can lead to much more entertaining playtimes as well.

I’m always interested to hear how other parents play so feel free to pop a comment below and tell me about your own experiences. Hope these wee tips help someone out there. As always, thanks for reading and if there’s anything else you’d like me to post about please get in touch, Cheers, John

5 Hints for Telling a Good Story

how to read to childrenFancy finding a way of having more fun reading stories to your kids? I read stories to my kids regularly, at least one a night and often more than that but apparently a lot of parents don’t do this (if Disney’s survey statistics are to believed I’m actually in the minority). I wrote about this issue in a blog post a few months ago so if you pop over to that you’ll see all the details and statistics, not to mention several arguments explaining the benefits of reading to your children (here’s the link). Given that I’ve already said my piece about the positive aspects of reading I thought today’s post could work as a guide to helping you and your kids enjoy the time you spend reading with them. You probably already do most of what follows but if you are unfamiliar with reading to you kids then hopefully this list can go some way to making it a much more enjoyable experience:

1) First off, think about the books you’re going to be reading. You shouldn’t read stories to your children that you yourself find boring or tedious. In fact your boredom will effect the way you read, leading to a boring and tedious delivery that your kids will tire of quickly. In short a book you don’t like will become a book none of you likes. Instead pick something you can get excited about, the excitement in your voice will catch attention and make the story instantly more engaging.

2) Drop any fear you have of being seen as ‘silly’, you’re a parent so that ship has already sailed; you have years ahead of you filled with your kids seeing you as out-of-touch, embarrassing or ridiculous, so give up any notion that you can still be ‘cool’ (at least in their eyes) and just get on with it. What you can be is fun, engaging and entertaining. Some of this leads on from 1, and it’s extremely important. You’ll need to give up to silliness if you want reading to become a shared (and enjoyable) activity. This saves it from becoming a chore which sees you spending your whole time just wrestling to get your kids to sit and listen.

3) Learn how to change your voice, even if only a little. From my experience most stories seem to have at most about 4 or 5 main speaking characters (though there are obviously a few exceptions). Keeping this in mind try and figure out some way of making four or five voices which are distinct from each other and your normal speaking voice (since you’ll be narrating in that). If you’re not good at imitating accents don’t do accents, it’ll just distract you, just change the tone and find different ways of talking by graduating between your ‘telephone voice’ and your more relaxed everyday accent.

4) Move your body and make eye contact with your kids. It’s not too hard to remember a few words in a row that you’ve just read. I find the simplest thing is to focus on dialogue; authors go to great lengths to keep dialogue short and snappy so it’s a great place to start breaking your gaze away from the book. You can then use expression and gestures to emphasise the character you’re playing. This way even if you find it hard to alter your voice you can have a second shot at distinguishing between characters through body language.

5) Read often and develop some favourites. If your child loves a particular book go with it and instead of getting bored with the repetition use it test your memorisation skills. This is actually a simple way of developing the skills described in 3) and 4) as you’ll come to know the characters better and find subtle ways of tweeking the way you play them. Repetition will also build your confidence, making it easier for you to adapt to new stories that come along.

That’s about it, it might never get you on Jackanory (or is that cbeebies bedtime stories now?) but it should make story time a lot more fun. This list is far from exhaustive so I’d love to hear any hints or tips you have for making story time more fun. Thanks again for popping over to my blog, Cheers, John

Oh and one last thing, try to encourage your child(ren) to tell a story along with the pictures too, even if they’re not readers yet, they’ll start to see how much fun it could be to read for themselves. Just as the repetition helps you, so too will your child(ren) pick up the story and eventually make it their own. Logan went through a phase where he could recite The Graffalo word for word (he couldn’t read at that stage, he rust remembered the story). He eventually started telling the story without the pictures in the book to help him. I’m not sure if there are any studies to support this but certainly from personal experience, reading to your children has a massive impact on their ability to retain text and recognise variation in tone at a very young age. Both pretty handy skills.

Mole’s house revisited

Logan at 'Mole's house' Lady Mary's walk CrieffA few weeks ago I wrote a post about a local favourite ‘Mole’s house‘ I went on to pop a condensed version of the same post up in my column in the Strathallan Times. The response to both was brilliant, my original post is the most viewed post I’ve written on here (it even surpassed my post about Barbie with no make up) but it was the reaction the article in the Strathallan Times that really surprised me. Just a few weeks later the imagineer behind one of Crieff’s favourite little secrets actually came forward after reading my article. It was a lady by the name of Pat Barron who put the little display together outside of mole’s door as a way of keeping her grandchildren occupied when they went out for a walk. She seemed genuinely surprised that mole’s house was so well known and so well loved in the community, and I have to admit it’s lovely to think that something that started out as such a simple idea has managed to lodge so well in the hearts of so so many local parents and children.

Thank you Pat for contributing something truly magical to our little town, I hope many more locals take a leaf out of your book. Recently comedian Mark Thomas came to the MacRobert in Stirling with a show describing his project called ‘100 acts of minor dissent‘ and it appears that the idea is gaining momentum. Imagine how great it would be if these acts provided something positive and lasting. An unofficial fruit garden in a local country spot or more little surprise things for children, like mole’s house (where parents themselves will have to judge safety rather than run under the advice of health and safety regulations). Of course I don’t officially sanction or recommend such activity, officially, but in some hypothetical world wouldn’t it be a fun thing to see?

Back to the Strathallan Times: on top of the article on Pat Barron there was also a follow up letter to the editor which appeared the following week which was written by mole himself, explaining the history of his house sign and how grateful he was for the gifts left for him by local children. From these two responses in the Times one of the biggest surprises, for me, was probably the fact that enough people read my column for it to have had this kind of effect. When it comes to my writing I have the habits that many bloggers probably do. At least two or three times a day I check my readership numbers to see how popular what I wrote was and if I’m ever lucky enough to receive a comment I jump to it and try to get a reply out as quickly as possible. However, when using an ‘old fashioned’ medium like a newspaper there are no stats to look at, no comments section to engage with.

Once the article is published you just have to hope that those that read it liked what they read and that perhaps one or two of them might mention it to a friend or they may even go so far as to find my blog and pop along with a follow and a comment. Seeing Pat’s resonse in the Strathallan Times a few weeks ago was brilliant and made me feel as though I must be, if nothing else, readable which is always a good thing for any writer to hear.

Just a short wee post this time to celebrate the power of the written word and the creativity of people. Thanks as always for reading and feel free to follow (e-mail box on the right) or comment (in the box below), if you do either you can guarantee you’ll get at the very least a ‘woohoo’ from me (and maybe even a wee jump). Cheers, John

Tuesday repost: Engendered toys: Construction toys

Had a couple of conversations on twitter about gender the other day and it made me want to revisit this post, just to clear up any confusion people might have about how I feel about gendering toys for children. Hope you enjoy it and please feel free to fire back any comments you have (good or bad).

Construction toys

I originally wrote this post a few months ago when I came home from work to find Logan and Alexander helping Grampa to fix a cupboard door. My mum and dad were watching the boys and my dad decided to do a much needed bit of DIY. When I was growing up my dad doing DIY was pretty much a constant event in our house. As soon as somebody mentions a dad doing DIY we start to expect the kind of story that highlights the bumbling mistakes of the dad and the inevitable call out to a professional. This was never the case with my dad, he was generally careful; especially when it came to electrical repairs, to be honest I don’t really remember any cases of him jumping in without doing at least a bit of research into what was involved in a job. As a result I grew up with the belief that if I’m careful and pay attention I’ll be able to fix most things that go wrong in the house. That said, what I saw on TV sent a very different message, through characters like Homer Simpson and Tim ‘the tool man’ Taylor.

new_4960802_retro-tv-icon-1I often have a good moan at the media blaming them for many of the woes of modern parenting but I can’t help it, I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I think most kids today are about the same. As a result I’d bet that TV plays a big role in the kind of self-image that kids come to develop (possibly bigger now than ever, now that we have dedicated kids TV stations). I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way men are sometimes depicted in the media. So, on to how this impacts toys: simply put I think that men are often depicted as not-so-handy, this is apparent in family comedies in particular, and as a result I expect that many boys exposed to that are likely to develop an image of themselves as similarly lacking in handy skills. If this is the case then you could expect traditional construction toys (like meccano) and toys involving the use of tools to have lost popularity from one generation to the next, and the sad fact is that they have.

Of course there’s no doubt that other factors have played their part in this. There’s no denying the massive role that computer games play in many young boys’ lives now compared even to when I was a kid (back in the 80s). What’s more we can’t ignore the role that the dreaded health and safety regulations (sometimes the killing stroke to some of the best toys) will have likely played in stamping down on toys with points and cutting edges.

tooltimeHowever, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post.

Describing shows like ‘Bob The Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’ as depictions of positive male role models may sound as if I’m advocating an exclusionary stance against girls when it comes to aspirations relating to characters like this. It’s important that I stress a distinction here between someone who claims that girls can’t do something and someone who wishes to emphasise the need for positive male role-models. I belong to the latter camp; while I wholeheartedly agree that girls need to feel capable of following a career path relating to a manual skill I don’t think this should be at the expense of a positive role model for boys. I also think that it’s important that these role-models follow boys throughout their development (beyond pre-school) and sadly they don’t. As soon as boys get into primary school they start to encounter an academic bias that makes light of the role of manual skills (unless you count art and craft). What they’re left with is sport and if they find themselves lacking in that department there isn’t anywhere traditionally ‘boyish’ left.

In the shop we have a woodworking kit with a saw, a hammer and all the other tools you’ll need to complete the projects in the box (you can see it in the picture at the top of this post). Sadly this set has sat there since before Christmas. I would have loved this set as a wee boy but it’s had little to no interest from children of the appropriate age. I don’t know if it’s lack of familiarity for the kids coming into the shop or if it’s lack of exposure from their parents but I haven’t seen one boy (or girl for that matter) giving it a second glance. Price may be a factor for the parents but that still doesn’t explain the lack of attention from the kids (who often pay little to no attention to the price of the toys they’re looking at).

lgst3241boys-are-stupid-throw-rocks-at-them-boys-are-stupid-poster

Really hate this meme, nothing positive about it and it’s not funny

This post has a lot in common with another post I did  about gender: in both I blame media depictions of day-to-day life which I think is  a depiction of shifts in gender stereotypes. In both posts I feel the need to blame these factors for the loss of interest in playing with these more ‘mundane’ kinds of toys. And my conclusion is very similar also, if children become familiar with the notion that only professionals can fix or build things, this has the potential to lead them to lose faith in their ability to look after their homes. I know I’ve concentrated on how boys are effected but it’s for a reason: whilst girls seem to be discouraged from ‘domestic’ toys in order to expose them to something ‘better’, when it comes to construction and repair boys seem to be getting the message that they can’t do these things whilst at the same time they are being denied a positive alternative. One move is seen as empowerment for girls but the alternative for boys seems to leave them questioning their abilities.

There’s no denying that the media often portrays the average man as unable to make/ do things for comedic effect but do you think I’m right to conclude that this can effect the attitudes of boys in relation to construction toys? On top of this do you think that working with your hands is beginning to be seen as somehow uncivilised or outdated? (Though it’s worth noting that if this were the case one would expect a similar drop in craft activities, which hasn’t happened). Also perhaps it’s just me but the recommended age for construction kits seems to have crept up; meccano is now for 7 or 8 years+, as is airfix, but I remember doing these kinds of sets at 5 or 6 years old (and no I’m not trying to sound like a child prodigy, loads of my friends did it too). Is this simply a health and safety issue or is it yet another example of boys being seen as ‘un-handy’?